"This is not an LAUSD story -- it is a statewide reality," Collins said in an e-mail.
Evidence suggests that L.A. Unified does a poor job of tracking teacher performance overall, making it tough to prove anyone is a bad apple.
A one-time study of teacher evaluations from the 2003-04 academic year, for instance, showed that 98.9% of all tenured teachers were said by supervisors to have "met standards."
The only categories in which a substantial percentage were said to have needed improvement concerned punctuality and attendance. Five percent had difficulty showing up on time.
Even some teachers union representatives said they do not believe the evaluations accurately portray the quality of teacher performance. Joshua Pechthalt, a United Teachers Los Angeles vice president, said the process is "fraught with problems" and results in teachers, especially young ones, not getting the guidance they need.
"I don't know any workplace where 98% of the people are doing a good job," Pechthalt said.
Contrition can help
In other districts, as well, review panels found officials to be too harsh, or determined that their firings weren't supported by "the preponderance of evidence" -- a standard also used in most civil cases.
San Diego Unified administrators tried and failed to fire an elementary school reading teacher who one district evaluator said could not follow a lesson plan.
"It was evident . . . that the teacher was likely not the most gifted or skilled," the commission said in reversing the dismissal. "However, her performance was not 'unsatisfactory' simply because she was not the most capable or the quickest study."
In many instances, an apology -- or at least an acknowledgment of error -- went a long way.
One teacher and coach from the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in the Bay Area was contrite after being accused of leering at teenage swimmers, making sexually charged remarks to students and instructing girls to "bark like seals" while they did push-ups.
"There is good reason to believe the respondent's conduct will not recur," the commission wrote of the teacher, who had worked in the district for 24 years.
In several cases, the commissions were torn. Ronald Hafner, a choral teacher with a long history of favorable evaluations in the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, was accused of serious misconduct during a trip he led with 24 students and five chaperons to Las Vegas. According to a commission summary, the district accused him of drinking alcohol in front of students, making offensive remarks -- such as suggesting that girls in his charge should apply to be strippers -- and touching a female student inappropriately.
Hafner disputed many of the accusations and argued in the hearing that he was the subject of a "witch hunt" by fundamentalist Christians. He could not be reached for comment.
In 2005, the panel found that Hafner's behavior was "shameful and inexcusable and demonstrates a severe lapse of judgment." But the teacher kept his job, because the district's allegations were not fully proved and did not warrant dismissal, according to the panel majority.
A middle school assistant principal on the panel wrote a sharp dissent:
"As a parent I would not allow my child in his classroom. As a colleague I cannot condone his conduct or attitude. As an administrator I could not trust him beyond my sight."